Based on the novel by Jane Rogers, Elizabeth Mitchell and Brek Taylor’s debut Island throws hateful young Nikki into an enchanted isle of folklore and revenge.
Notes From A Small Island by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Islands have a strange place in our cinematic history. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest springs to mind with its likewise female magician, razed society, and mythical Caliban. But more recently, there was Whisky Galore!, The Wicker Man and Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago, isles of wile, superstition and guile. It’s a place of mysterious enchantment that Elizabeth Mitchell and Brek Taylor’s Island plays to as fairytale threads are woven into a narrative tapestry of abandonment, love and revenge. But it’s not magical realism. At all. In fact, if anything it’s more of a psychological study with its protagonist Nikki, abandoned as a baby, who comes to Mull to wreak furious vengeance on the mother who sacrificed her to a lifetime of foster care and institutions. The watery horizons of Mull seem like a million miles away from her London woes, but with her traumatic flashbacks and urban threads, Natalie Press does a fantastic job of pressing her city troubles onto this small island.
A woman scorned, she bristles as she descends upon the Hebridean Isle. But armed with a human geography project as her alibi, it’s not long before she’s lodged herself a room in her mother’s house. On the doorstep, the two women size each other up, and as Phyllis clears a space for Nikki’s things in her son’s room, Janet McTeer towers above Natalie Press like a female version of Finn McCool, decked out in territorial tartan. Nikki’s half-brother Calum is like a giant too, Colin Morgan somehow stepped up and hollering above Nikki, who shakes like a nervous child at the thought of a brother she didn’t know existed. No-nonsense brittleness though is what Natalie Press does best, her fictional chip-on-the-shoulder intact from Andrea Arnold’s Wasp and Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer Of Love. And while she rages against her mother and is turns apoplectic with sound-triggered memories, she’s drawn to the her holy innocent brother and his fabulous world of make-believe.
Somewhere between a simpleton and a hunchback, between Miranda and Caliban, Calum collects oyster shells, his mother-of-pearl his treasure from the sea. His home is a driftwood byre of wind-blown bottles, waylaid shoes and pretty objets he finds during his days of idle beachcombing. Overwhelmed by his overbearing mother, he’s excluded from adult usefulness as a fisherman and retreats to a world of stories inherited from his drowned father where fir apples and babies abandoned on Table Rock are brought up by cormorants and seals. Where fairies inhabit the island, Lucifer’s angels who left heaven after the fall, plotting mischief on the living and sucking the goodness out of things. It’s a world of fantasy the escapist Nikki devours, and it’s not long before these enfants terribles start to plot a more real form of escape to a brave new world.
She may be dying of cancer, but surrounded by her vials of medicine and bottles marked poison, Phyllis has a necromancing potency. Nikki fears she can control the weather and even caused the shipwreck of her seafaring husband. And as the two youngsters take to the sea, it’s this modern day Prospero who nearly drowns them and prevents their escape. Or so Nikki thinks. But there’s also a mournful strangeness to Phyllis’s presence. Every year, she marks her dead daughter’s birthday with a cinegenic trail of candles. And almost prescient of her impending doom, she weaves a web of stories that, like Scheherezade in Nikki’s copy of Arabian Nights, keeps death at bay. It’s a catfight to the bitter end and while Nikki may retain our sympathies, Phyllis’ gravitas always seems to trump her daughter’s childish sniping.
Greek myth can’t escape this melting pot of legend either, Oedipus visiting Mull this time instead of Thebes – Phyllis raped by her brother, killed by her son and Nikki fated to repeat her mother’s lot. It’s a shame really, because it’s a fumbled plot climax that neither fits the sensitive and kind of wimpish Calum nor the bellicose Nikki very well. Is it a rape or reluctant incest? And why does she let her wispish brother overpower her? While Island does a commendable job of painting us a portrait of an unlikable girl, Calum’s sudden violence and Nikki’s suicidal urges seem rather chauvinist, an all-too-common female sacrifice to the man, with the final-reel aggressors ex machina serving no other purpose than to allow Nikki to take possession of her brother’s violence.
Despite its delicious ambiance of lowering trees and troubling mists, its dazzling sound design of howling winds and smouldering waves, Island is more a patchwork of broken stories than a robust narrative. At times, the mix of enchantment, abuse and desolation strikes an uneven balance, and while it’s almost a three-hander, Taylor and Mitchell leave the villagers, in our rare glimpses of them, looking like proverbial idiots. Both Colin Morgan and Natalie Press are stunning, neatly capturing Nikki’s pathological instability as she burns a birthday photo in murderous frenzy or Calum’s balancing act between charming innocent and backward idiot. But you can almost feel Janet McTeer straining at the clichéd confines of her role, and wile Island might start out as Cinderella with matricidal rage, it ends up as a rather touching lovestory between two lost souls. Hansel and Gretel Go Boating maybe.
Island is released on the 22nd April 2011 in the UK